“At times, Henry regarded the wounded soldiers in an envious way. He conceived persons with torn bodies to be peculiarly happy. He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage.”
Stephen Crane’s most famous novel, The Red Badge of Courage, has never been out of print since its first serialized publication in 1894. This humanizing vision of the Civil War and one young soldier’s fear and doubt on the battlefield has repeatedly proved to touch generations of readers. It is considered the first and one of the only books to truly dive into the emotions of those on the frontlines.
An interesting fact, Crane himself never fought in the Civil War. In fact, he wasn’t even born until after the war had ended, almost six years later. And he died in 1900 at the age of only 28, but after a varied and successful writing career.
The Red Badge of Courage was adapted into a famous film version by John Huston, but a live production has never been performed in New York until now; Boots on the Ground Theater, headed by Bonnie Grice, 88.3 WPPB FM’s morning host, is bringing Red Badge to Southampton beginning Friday, October 19.
The cast ranges from Thomas Schiavoni — a 14-year-old Pierson High School freshman in the leading role of Henry Fleming — to Christopher Levi, who takes his place for the first time on the boards, but with the experience of war under his belt. Levi, who plays the Colonel, is a bilateral amputee. Riding in a Humvee in Iraq in 2008, an improvised exploding device blasted through the vehicle and through cut through both of his legs, also causing significant damage to his right arm and hand, which were saved.
An investment advisor with American Portfolios, Levi is cheerful and upbeat about his life and about the show. He became involved with Red Badge through Bill Donahue, an active member of Honor Flight Long Island, and the two were occasional guests on Grice’s show when Honor Flight had an upcoming event. “When I found out, through Bill, about this production, I was 100 percent on board,” he said, even though his only other theatrical appearance was Sebastian in The Little Mermaid.
What is the production stirring up in him?
“When I was wounded in March of 2008, it took three days to get me from Iraq to Germany and then over the Atlantic to the States,” Levi said. “By the third day, they were waking me up, and before I spoke to anybody in my family, I spoke to the nurse. And I asked her, ‘How long?’ She was confused; she said, ‘How long what?’ I said, ‘Until I get my prosthetic legs and I can start training to use them.’ She told me two months or so, and I thought, ‘That’s great! I’m only five months into a 15-month deployment, I can learn how to use them in-country before heading back.’ And she said, ‘You’re never going back to Iraq.’ And that threw me. Because I knew I had lost my legs, I knew I might lose my right arm, but the idea of not going back never occurred to me, because it was a place where I really felt ‘a part of,’ wholeheartedly.”
Levi believes that’s true for many warriors. “And this production is really good at nailing those archetypal characters. This is a very old story, but they are as human and true today in any circle, that are so similar, so you can see yourself in anybody’s shoes. There’s the old guy with the pipe; the one the other guys go to for an honest opinion who has experience, but isn’t so high-ranking that he’s away from the people, and that person still exists in every rank and file today. The archetypes are always there — it’s just the individuals who are different.”
Levi, along with producer Grice and director Josephine Terisi-Wallace, is looking forward to reaching a younger audience, since all of Boots on the Ground’s productions have both a historical and educational element. Vietnam veteran and Civil War reenactor Captain Joseph Bilardello has come to the set during rehearsals to help the cast get into the feel of what it was really like on the battlefield in the 1860s. “He drilled the soldiers, and showed them how to hold and load the guns,” said Grice. “Another re-enactor with the 67th regiment came fully geared out. It was amazing.”
Pre- or post-performance, the audience will be able to experience a display of Civil War memorabilia in the gallery at the Southampton Cultural Center. And there is also a special free performance for veterans and their families on November 4.
“Crane’s book is timeless, and that’s why it’s never been out of print,” Grice said. “It’s not about battles and bluster, it’s about what the soldiers felt like going into war.”
“Because of that, the innocence and the bravery and what changes you,” added Terisi-Wallace. “Everyone will be able to relate.”
The Red Badge of Courage opens on October 19 and runs through November 4. For times and tickets, visit the website at www.scc-arts.org.